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The Waratahs used smoke and mirrors to try and flip the Eden Park script but it wasn’t enough to stop a rerun of the same old nightmare, bowing out of the finals in a 41-12 defeat to the Blues on Friday night.
In Michael Hooper’s last game as a Waratah, NSW led early but blew a competitive first half-hour by conceding a try just before the break and then falling out of the contest entirely in the second half, with the impressive Blues scoring another three tries down the stretch.
It was the eighth loss from eight finals in New Zealand for the Waratahs, and put an end to a season that started with high expectations of a top four finish, but ended with a whimper.
The Waratahs tried to catch the Blues by surprise before kick-off, making six changes to the starting line-up and almost entirely rearranging the back line. But the changes didn’t make much difference in a clash where the powerhouse Blues proved the superior team, particular in the physical exchanges.
Muscling up at the line, the Blues denied the Waratahs any of the go-forward they need to build an attacking game, frequently holding up the Tahs runners in contact and then slowing the ball up further with breakdown pressure.
Standing in as captain for the concussed Jake Gordon, Hooper turned in a typically dogged, 20-tackle shift but he signed off his 142nd and final NSW game with the emptiness of defeat for the second consecutive week.
Michael Hooper sits alone after his final game as a Waratah.Credit: Getty
“It’s disappointing,” Waratahs lock Jed Holloway said. “There are a couple of great men, Michael Hooper, Tetera Faulkner and Tolu Latu, who have finished with the club and it’s disappointing we sent them out like that.
“They made a mess of our breakdown and we paid for it, there were a couple of easy exits [for the Blues] through discipline. You can’t do that against a team that has the quality the Blues have. They’re a good team and we wish them well for next week.”
The Blues go on to meet the winner of the Crusaders and the Fijian Drua, and the Waratahs are left to wonder what went wrong in a season that started with so much optimism.
After a resurgent season in 2022, and some promising recruitment, coach Darren Coleman had targeted growth this year and boldly aimed for the top four.
Mark Nawaqantiwase takes the ball forward for the Waratahs.Credit: Getty
A poor start to the year effectively cruelled that, but bonus points and a run of four wins in the middle of the year saw them bank enough to finish sixth. After crashing to two defeats in the last two rounds, however, the suddenly demoralised Waratahs were always going to struggle against a dangerous Blues team in Auckland – and so it proved.
Coleman tried his best to pull a rabbit from the hat before kick-off by almost re-writing his entire team sheet, with six positional changes to the starting XV, including Tane Edmed coming into five-eighth, Ben Donaldson returning to fullback, and Lalakai Foketi dropping back to a bench that also had three changes.
Izaia Perese was moved back to outside centre and helped NSW take an early lead when he collected a loose ball, ran upfield and led Ned Hanigan for a try.
The Waratahs looked up for the fight and, on the back of a strong defence, held 65 per cent of the territory in the opening 30 minutes. The Blues took a penalty and scored a try from long range to Finlay Christie, and held a 10-7 lead with the half almost over.
Michael Hooper charges forward into the defence.Credit: Getty
The Waratahs let the Blues off the hook when Dylan Pietsch dropped the ball over the line. Coupled with poor discipline that allowed the Blues cheap exits, the hosts were allowed to do what they do so often: score a try before half-time.
The Blues suddenly led 17-7 at the break and put their foot on the Tahs’ throat in the second half, scoring three more tries to cruise home.
The Waratahs couldn’t match the Blues’ power in contact, and when they had rare opportunities to build pressure, silly decisions undid their hard work.
Pietsch scored a consolation, but it was far too little, far too late.
“We got taught a bit of a lesson early on, the Tahs turned up and brought some good heat, particularly on the inside, they brought some good line speed and kind of rattled us,” Beauden Barrett said.
“But we learnt from that and 20 minutes in we got into our work. They’re a good side, they turned up and played tonight but credit to us, we rolled our sleeves up and did what we’re good at.”
Holloway paid tribute to the departing Hooper.
“There is a lot I am going to miss about him,” he said.
“Just his overall intensity, his care to each and every player, his willingness to have hard conversations and give you absolute honesty and just his drive, for a guy who has done it for as long as he has, to be leading the pack in every kick chase and doing what he does, it’s amazing.
“I am going to miss him, the Tahs are going to miss him.”
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